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Growing With The Spiral-Grained Trees

AMANDA, our youngest daughter, and I went up the ranch this morning, to a hill of spiral-grained trees. We didn't know that's where we were going. We just set out to explore and to talk.

I had been absorbed in my part-time job taking care of this ranch, writing, and gardening so much that Amanda, who pursues her education at home, had had time with me only as she sought me out during the work I was doing and during the brief mornings and evenings I was at home. We had good conversations while gardening together, but her excursions into the world around us had been mostly by herself.

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So, as Mole says early in the book "Wind in the Willows," "Hang spring cleaning!" and we bolted out of the house. "Hither and thither through the meadows ... finding everywhere birds building, flowers budding ... everything happy, and progressive and occupied." A Rocky Mountain cold morning wind made us wonder if we had wrapped ourselves heavily enough. We stayed to the course, almost too cold, but not quite.

Up the ranch about a mile, where meadow gives way to a drop-off into a small canyon, we walked out onto a high point of rough granite rock, with small trees, grass, and flowers growing from spaces between broken, eroding stone. We looked miles across stone mountains.

Dramatic rock formations thrust up toward the clear blue sky. Miles of trees spread out before us, large trees in low areas where granite had eroded and built deeper soil, where centuries of grass, flowers, and shrubs had grown, died, or dropped dead leaves, adding organic material to the soil. Smaller trees grew up in the rocks, sent roots down into the soil, down into the rock itself.

Standing still, we felt the chill of the wind more. We walked down into the top edge of the small canyon we had stood above. When we walked out of the wind, we experienced an abrupt change of climate. Granite boulders sheltered us on three sides. The wind blew well above us. Sunshine warmed us. We sat on a blown-down tree whose bark was gone. The wood had weathered silver gray and smooth.

We talked of cabbages and kings, many things, as they came to mind. Birds sang around us. Amanda said, "I'd like to be able to identify more birds by their songs. That one is a familiar song, but I don't know what bird sings it."

"We could follow the song and see if we can find the bird," I said.

"Every time I try that, the bird flies away before I see it."

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I felt lazy in warm sunshine. "I'm content to let the bird songs drift around us without knowing what bird is singing," I said. "The songs I connect with particular birds are songs I know because the bird allowed me to see it when it sang. I didn't try to find it. I'll probably go on being lazy about it, learning what is given to me and not trying to find the singers."

"That's a good way to learn, too," Amanda said. Maybe you learn more that way. If you sit quietly, birds come around. If you stalk them, they flee."

A red-crossbill finch landed on a rock above us, dipped his head down and then raised his head. "He's drinking," she said. "There must be water up there."

His mate landed beside him and also drank. They lingered briefly, then launched on rapid wings into the wind still blowing across the sky above us.

We climbed onto the rock and looked down into the small hole, nearly full of rusty-colored water, lined with moss. Amanda said, "I wouldn't want to drink from that."

"Birds aren't bothered by ideas, the way we humans are."

We retreated back to our sitting place. We had not finished talking of cabbages and kings. "When I stayed all summer on Coalpit Mountain in eastern Oregon, years ago," I said, "I thought I was going to buy the place. There was a place at the top of a bluff with huge granite boulders. I intended to build a house of stone there."

"How would you do that?"

"Well, it didn't look quite like this, but if these two boulders were going to be part of one wall, I'd mortar together smaller rocks between them until I had this space filled in.

"I'd do the same thing between these two, so most of two walls would be the boulders that were already here. This side, I would have to build the entire wall, with big windows to look out on all the country. Then I'd build a roof to fit. I planned to have one door on top, so you could climb out on top of the tallest boulder. The walls wouldn't be regular or the corners square, but I never thought people needed flat walls and square corners."

"What would you do for the floor?" Amanda asked.

"Just clear most of the loose rocks and dirt out," I said. "If we were building here, we'd dig down to solid rock, and that would be our floor. It wouldn't be level, but people don't need level floors. It could be irregular enough to have places to sit and different levels."

We thought the tree we were sitting on could be left there, for furniture.

We walked down into the small canyon below us. Trees long ago blown down lay in the deer trail we followed. The bark was off the trees. The first one we passed had spiral grain, completing a turn around the tree in about two feet. Then we saw several more downed trees with spiral grain. I said, "Maybe they grow that way so they won't be good for lumber. It takes straight grain to make good lumber."

"But you can't tell when the tree is alive and still has the bark on."

We found one live, standing tree that had part of the bark near the top gone, knocked away by lightning a long time ago. It also had spiral grain.

We came to no conclusion about what caused the trees to grow with spiral grain. There is something liberating and strengthening about being able to say, "I don't know."

Aspen grew, and lush grass and flowers and larger pine and fir trees, down in the bottom, where the soil was thicker. We sat on a stump for a while, still talking of those thoughts that have little to do with the daily necessities of our existence but mean everything in our growth, thoughts about kings, the way of the world of men, both destructive and glorious. And cabbages, mundane physical food, yet marvelous in complexity and in that force which causes everything in the natural world to grow toward t he future, just as we grow and talk toward the future.

WE walked slowly back up to the rim, following an easy way. We climbed up onto the high point of rock and again looked out over miles of wild, rough, uninhabited country.

While we were sheltered down in the rocks and down in the canyon, cold wind had moderated to a warm breeze. We carried our jackets and headed for home, still feeling warm and lazy, having set aside for a time the exigencies of living to live. As is always the case when I take time to be with our daughters, doing nothing of consequence but living, I have received more than I have given.

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